Johnathan Thurston AM was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 2023 as an Athlete Member for his contribution to the sport of rugby league.
Thurston was one of Australian rugby league’s greatest players in a glittering career which saw him dominate at state, national and international levels.
Initially overlooked as a talented teenager being deemed “too small”, Thurston overcame that hurdle with a strong belief in his own ability, a humility that endeared himself to the fans and teammates, a strong skills set, and a work-rate that gave him the greatest chance of attaining success.
He was an inspirational player as a half-back or five-eighth, who consistently elevated his team and inspired the fans, as well as being a role model for the Indigenous community.
He played in two NRL premierships – the first in which he came off the bench in Canterbury’s 2004 win over the Roosters; the second as the hero of North Queensland’s maiden success in the 2015 grand final – in a stunning career that stretched from 2002 to 2018.
In that time, he won four Dally M Medals – the NRL’s most prestigious individual honour – in 2005, 2007, 2014-15, as well as the Clive Churchill Medal in the 2015 grand final success.
Thurston was a Queensland State-of-Origin legend, playing 37 matches between 2005-17, including a record 36 in a row, as well as scoring a record 212 points.
He also performed at a consistently high standard for his country from 2005 to 2017, including scoring a record 382 points for the Kangaroos. He also won the Golden Boot Award, an award given to the player judged the best in the world, on three occasions (2011, 2013 and 2015).
It was the sliding doors moment in NRL history that paved the way for one of the game’s greatest players and helped to alter the rugby league landscape in north Queensland.
Johnathan Thurston had grown up as a kid in Brisbane’s south side, watching his father Graeme play the sport he came to love, and earning $1 per game as an eager ball boy.
His dream was to play for the Broncos, but despite the talent he possessed, scouts from the club dismissed him as “too small”. He was still growing, but his frustration at being consistently overlooked when others were getting scholarships took him to the point of briefly considering quitting the sport he came to dominate.
Thankfully, he chose to keep on playing.
Ultimately his chance came not with the Broncos, but with Canterbury-Bankstown, who signed him on a “nil playing fee” for the 2001 season. He made his debut the following year and played three seasons with the Bulldogs.
Thurston replaced injured Bulldogs captain Steve Price for the 2004 NRL grand final, coming off the bench to play a role in the club’s 16-13 premiership success. But it was his private moment after the match when he handed his premiership medallion to Price “because we did it for him” that forged part of the legend surrounding the up and coming young star.
It was Thurston’s final game with the Bulldogs. In 2005 he transferred to North Queensland where he transformed from promising player into one of the most decorated stars in the game. His move north also coincided with his State-of-Origin journey as he was chosen to play for Queensland for the first time in what would be a huge part of his sporting journey.
He won the first of four Dally Medals in 2005 – the others would come in 2007, and 2014-15 – and helped North Queensland to reach its first grand final that year. He couldn’t make it back to back premierships, though, as the Wests Tigers proved too good for the Cowboys.
The man known as ‘JT’ played for the Kangaroos for the first time in 2006, helping Australia win the Anzac Test against New Zealand, kick-starting his international career with a flourish.
By 2007, he was captain of North Queensland and won his second Dally M Medal as well winning man of the match in the first State-of-Origin clash of the series. The following year he helped to set up Queensland’s third consecutive State-of-Origin series win when he pierced his way through a sea of Blues’ players to set up the winning try for Billy Slater.
His man-of-the-match performance as half-back in the opening game of the 2010 State-of-Origin series drew comparisons with some of the great individual performances for his aggressive passing, his ability to own the key moments, and his competitive streak.
He embraced his Indigenous roots and his Gunggari heritage, wore footy boots, his trademark headgear and mouthguard often in the colours of the Indigenous flag and provided an inspiration for the First Nations Community.
Thurston won back-to-back Dally M Medals in 2014 and 2015, highlighting his greatness, with the last of those victories making him the first and to date only player to win four of those medals.
He spearheaded North Queensland’s first premiership success in 2015 after one of the most dramatic playoffs in the competition’s history. Thurston remained unflappable, even after hitting the post when missing the conversion, sending the game into a golden point extra-time. He kicked a field goal in the 82nd minute to break the deadlock and win the premiership for his team, locking in the Clive Churchill Medal in the process.
The image of Thurston sitting with his daughter Frankie, who was clutching a doll and holding onto her dad’s premiership medal, was a heart-warming post-match moment.
He led the Cowboys to success in the 2016 World Club Challenge Championship, winning the man of the match.
Thurston injured his shoulder in the 2017 State-of-Origin series, which ruled him out for the rest of the season and cost him the chance to play in the NRL grand final where North Queensland lost to Melbourne. He watched the game from the coaches’ box, but his sportsmanship after the match was on show as he congratulated his Maroons teammates but club opponents in Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk.
He resolved that 2018 was going to be his final NRL season and hoped to secure the perfect way to go out of the game, but it wasn’t to be. It proved a tough year for the Cowboys, but a final round classic from Thurston in his last match gave the North Queensland crowd what it needed. He helped the Cowboys produce a stunning comeback win over Gold Coast as more than 26,000 fans came to say their last goodbye to a rugby league legend.
It was a fitting farewell as Thurston thanked the fans – and the game – for the support received across 17 NRL seasons and a swag of accolades that put him into elite company.
As the Daily Telegraph summed up after that match: “Goodbye JT. After 294 games for the Cowboys, 29 for Canterbury, 38 Tests, 37 State of Origin matches, two premierships, four Dally M Medals and 2222 career points, the champ has left the building.”
Honours & Achievements
- 2005: Dally M Player of the Year
- 2005: Rugby League Players Association Player of the Year
- 2007: Dally M Player of the Year 2nd time
- 2008: Won the Wally Lewis Medal for player of the State of Origin Series
- 2013: Rugby League Players Association Player of the Year 2nd time
- 2014: Dally M Player of the Year 3rd time
- 2014: Rugby League Players Association Player of the Year 3rd time
- 2014: Made Life Member of North Queensland Cowboys
- 2015: Dally M Player of the Year 4th time
- 2015: Rugby League Players Association Player of the Year 4th time
- 2015: Dally M Captain of the Year
- 2019: Made a Member of the Order of Australia
Photo courtesy News Corp Australia.